Backcountry Is a Subtle, Slow-Burn Thriller

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Backcountry Photo: Lindsay Sarazin/IFC Films

The best way to watch Adam MacDonald’s Backcountry is to go in not knowing anything about it. Not because it’s full of surprises and twists, but because it’s a slow-burn backwoods thriller that carefully creates a gathering sense of unease. Wait — have I already said too much??

No, really: Feel free to stop reading anytime, and consider everything from here on to be a spoiler. Go into Backcountry expecting too much and you might be disappointed. But know that it’s beautifully tense and well-acted — the kind of modest genre picture we don’t see enough of these days. It bears some resemblance to previous entries in the people-stuck-in-a-desperate-battle-against-the-elements genre. Think of Adam Green’s Frozen (not the Disney movie), which gave us three people stranded on a ski lift, and Chris Kentis’s Open Water, which had a couple cast out in the open ocean with a bunch of sharks. 

Here, though, the desperation gathers slowly. Jenn (Missy Peregrym) and Alex (Jeff Roop) go hiking in a large Canadian park for a few days. He’s come here before and wants to take her on the remote Blackfoot Trail. She has trouble putting down her cellphone, and is thoroughly unseasoned in all matters outdoorsy. A ranger at the park entrance warns them against going off without a map. Alex, a little too proud of his own survival skills, ignores him.

Already, there are subtle hints being dropped about this couple’s shifting power dynamic: He’s a landscaper in between jobs, whereas she’s a high-powered lawyer. This trip into the woods is his chance to reassert his masculinity, in a sense — to put her in a position where she’s dependent on him, instead of vice versa. But like I said — it’s subtle. By and large, Jenn and Alex have an easygoing back-and-forth. And Backcountry’s greatest asset is that its characters feel lived in. These two genuinely seem like they’ve spent some time together, which heightens our attentiveness around them; we know to watch for small gestures and glances that might speak to deeper feelings of inadequacy and resentment.

At first, it’s just our protagonists and the quiet of the woods — sometimes eerie, sometimes soothing. There isn’t a lot of plot early on, but don’t worry, this is a thriller; in fact, it’s a horror movie, and the film uses the characters’ gathering emotional suspicion to anchor what happens next. First, they meet another hiker, Brad (Eric Balfour), who takes an interest in Jenn and who is clearly a better outdoorsman than Alex. The tension created by their encounter then allows director MacDonald to do a clever little bait-and-switch with what turns out to be the real threat to Jenn and Alex’s existence: There’s also a bear out here in the woods — one whose presence we notice ever so slowly.

I’m probably being a lot more coy about what happens in Backcountry than a lot of its marketing; I mean, there’s a big honking bear right there on the poster. Maybe it’ll make more money if people go in expecting a deadly nature monster movie. But while there is some gore late in the film, what makes Backcountry special is the care and patience it invests in its characters and the quiet, haunting tension of its story line. The imaginary monsters of the human mind, it turns out, can be as dangerous as any wild predator.